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No time to waste

Old habits die hard.
But they can be changed, as anti-smoking and drunk driving campaigns have proved. We are learning to recycle our garbage, which is perilously close to exhausting our landfills.

But experts say that's not enough. The crucial challenge is to reduce it.

Apr 18, 2009



Twenty years ago, mothers smoked while reading bedtime stories to their children.

Professionals hit happy hour after work and joked about their drunken car drive home.

Ontarians filled their garbage bags with pop cans, newspapers, plastic water bottles and whatever else they wanted to get rid of.

No more.

What seems unimaginable now was once ordinary behaviour. All this has changed – and, most would say, for the better.

But although change has begun, it is far from complete. Limited space in Ontario landfill sites is being rapidly consumed by waste packaging – the cardboard and plastic boxes that wrap themselves around tiny toys, the hundreds of millions of coffee cups and the plastic beverage bottles that did not make it to recycling bins.

Time is running out, environmentalists and others say, for consumers and businesses to change their wasteful ways.

"If we don't make change, it is going to catch up with us," said Pascal Murphy, a master's student in York University's environmental studies program.

Millions of plastic bottles, grocery bags and coffee cups end up on the streets, beaches and forests as litter. Some of that plastic enters the water stream and, over time, can be carried as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Marine life, such as the endangered leatherback sea turtle, mistake plastic bags and bottles for jellyfish and eat them. And so the litter that originated in a faraway city gets trapped in their digestive system, often leading to starvation.

But an emerging movement against waste packaging is slowly gaining ground in Ontario. Some predict years from now its polluting presence will be diminished, much like smoking and drunk driving.

Just listen to Geoff Rathbone, who chuckles as he recalls organizing his first blue-box program two decades ago. "It was in Essex-Windsor," says the general manager of the City of Toronto's solid waste department, "and the reaction there was `How can you expect us to separate our newspapers from our garbage? This is insanity!'

"That response seems laughable now. Twenty years hence, a lot of the things we are doing today will seem the same."

Tell that to the purveyors and consumers of Tim Hortons' coffee cups. When a Rathbone-penned staff report suggested last fall that Toronto coffee shops replace disposable coffee cups with reusable mugs or a deposit-return system, the proposal prompted outrage. A simple attempt to remove garbage from landfill became a controversy of double-double proportions.

While tossing a plastic pop bottle in the garbage instead of recycling bin does not carry the gravitas – and criminal penalty – of a drinking and driving charge, there is a growing public awareness that when it comes to the environment, change is needed now. Consider:

Ontario residents, institutions and industries produce 12.4 million tonnes of garbage a year, the equivalent weight of more than 80,000 fully loaded Boeing 707 jetliners.

Only 3 million tonnes are diverted from landfill sites into recycled goods, with about 6 million tonnes ending up in Canadian dumps.

Four million tonnes of waste is trucked annually from Ontario to Michigan, where the state government has made it clear it does not want to continue accepting it.

Many of Ontario's landfills will reach capacity in roughly 20 years.

Much of the garbage dumped in landfill is packaging. Residential blue bins overflow with packaging.

North Americans have been only too happy to buy into the disposable culture of consumerism, demanding the convenience of bottled water, coffee-to-go and hamburgers in Styrofoam containers.

"We don't have a waste disposal crisis," said Anastasia Lintner of Ecojustice. "We have a waste generation crisis. ... We are gluttons."

As important as recycling has been to the environment, the original Three Rs included reducing and reusing – concepts consumers and industry did not embrace.

"We have been completely drilled into thinking of recycling as the solution to this problem of packaging," says Heather Marshall of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "It is not. Recycling is the last thing you would do before you throw it away. What we really have to do is teach the hierarchy of the `Three Rs'; we must reduce first, then reuse and, finally, recycle."

Pop bottles are a good example: Historically most soft drinks in Ontario were sold in reusable glass bottles. Starting in the 1970s, the beverage industry introduced plastic bottles and aluminum cans, claiming they were safer and more convenient for consumers. More packaging created more garbage. Waste management became a top priority for governments.

In the 1970s, the environment ministry created new regulations requiring the phase-out of disposable bottles. Industry fought back, and an informal agreement was reached that required at least 75 per cent of bottled drinks to be sold in refillable containers, according to a paper by the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy. But government couldn't enforce it and today, almost all water and soft drinks are sold in disposable containers.

By the 1980s, disposable bottles proliferated, clogging landfills. The environment ministry responded with regulations that forced the soft drink industry to sell roughly 40 per cent of its products in re-fillable bottles, but those rules, according to waste consultant Clarissa Morawski, were never enforced.

"Most of the time voluntary initiatives fail," Morawski said. Strong laws create a level playing field and force change upon those who don't want to adapt, she says. Morawski cites Germany, which spent years in court fighting to establish government's right to force the use of refillable soft drink bottles.

Despite ignoring its own refillable bottle regulations, Morawski said Ontario's plan, called Toward A Zero Waste Future, represents a radical shift in environmental policy. Several changes have already been made, including the requirement that tire manufacturers pay for their disposal. The environment ministry is working on its plan for legislative change, focusing on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which would require a manufacturer to pay the full cost of its product, including disposal.

It is also widely expected that the government plan will require industry to cover 100 per cent of the blue-box program, which has a net annual cost of roughly $155 million. "We all need to recognize that EPR is here to stay," Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen told the annual meeting of Waste Diversion Ontario this month.

Take Wal-Mart for example: The world's largest retailer is taking a leading role in reducing packaging of the products it sells.

It started in Canada last year by forcing laundry detergent companies to use concentrated products. Wal-Mart Canada spokesperson Karin Campbell says the company plans to require all suppliers to reduce packaging if they wish to remain in the stores. She estimates that 92 per cent of Wal-Mart's environmental footprint comes from packaging and this program is expected to reduce that by 5 per cent. That may not sound like much, but given the volume of the firm's sales – 1 million customers a day – the impact would be significant: It will save 2.7 million kilograms of plastic resin, 3.6 million kilograms of cardboard and remove 1,200 delivery trucks from the road over a three-year period, Campbell said.

Coca-Cola has decided to use lighter materials in its bottles and cans. But as Rathbone and others point out, volume – not weight – is what matters. "Our landfills will not be full because they're too heavy; they will be full when they reach their capacity," he says.

The oceans are the great predictors of environmental change, and it is the Atlantic, off the coast of Nova Scotia, where Dalhousie University scientist Mike James studies the endangered leatherback sea turtle. The enormous turtles feed where ocean currents merge, pulling in their favoured food, jellyfish – and a massive field of plastics bottles and bags, chairs, balloons and beach balls from around the world.

The plastics are found in the bodies of dead albatross, porpoises, turtles and other marine life that confuse them for food. In the Pacific, powerful currents pull the litter into seemingly endless piles of floating plastic, named the Plastic Killing Fields by researchers who study their impact on marine life.

The movement against packaging has begun, albeit slowly. Governments, especially Toronto's, will force grocery stores to charge a nickel for each plastic bag by June 1. And Toronto has started to charge residents for the amount of garbage they produce.

But more importantly, these fees force people to question why industry can use excessive packaging that must then be paid for by residents. Financial incentives such as garbage fees play a huge role in behaviour modification.

"It's like potty training," says Morawski. "Parents use incentives to train their children; if you go to the potty, you get a sticker. Proper waste diversion by citizens is very similar. It may be really hard to train a 2-year-old, but once they get it, they'll never go back. When it comes to garbage, we're the same."

As published at: http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/article/620577

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